4 way to play nicer with IT

Marketing and IT executives are finding themselves increasingly stepping on each other's toes. We look at how you can get along better with the IT function of your company

More and more IT execs and CMOs are adding "Play nice to each other" on their to-do lists these days. The reason? Technology is rapidly remaking marketing departments, to the point where previously siloed corporate marketing campaigns are morphing into enterprise digital media projects that encompass -- or are even run by -- IT.

This is especially true as social media increasingly becomes more important to companies' identities and dealings with customers.

But there remains a chasm: IT in general doesn't want to be bothered with branding and making things look pretty, and it doesn't welcome interference in its data centre, either. By the same token, marketing isn't much interested in the details of how things work. It just wants things to work, even if they're not perfect.

How can two such very different mindsets meet in the middle to collaborate on projects that are ever more critical to the business -- and ever more tech-centric, as marketing goes fully digital, dynamic and data-driven?

We checked in with marketing and tech executives at companies in a range of disciplines to garner their advice on making the IT-marketing relationship productive. Read on for their four best practices.

1. Consider your organisational structure

The United States Golf Association (USGA) relies heavily on digital marketing and has an atypical organisational structure to prove it: Its digital media team reports to IT, and IT reports to marketing.

"This provides a more streamlined and logical business flow for planning, design and implementation of digital and B2B applications," says Jessica Carroll, managing director of the hybrid department, dubbed Information Technologies and Digital Media. "Since Digital Media reports to IT, and IT reports into the business executive responsible for marketing, there is great clarity and smart directives for pulling these intertwined and critical functions together," Carroll explains.

Other organisations, while not ready to make such a bold move, still acknowledge the need for tight integration with and division of duties between marketing and IT. In the Miami-Dade (Fla.) County government, for example, digital media-related functions report to marketing but coordinate with IT on Web-related projects.

"In IT's working relationship with marketing, we have a collective understanding that marketing defines what it wants, and IT makes it happen," says Carmen Suarez, the county's director of the Enterprise Architecture Services Division.

"We are responsible for technical support, for running the website portals and for all of the back-end integration of the websites," she explains. "Within marketing, there is a function that deals with social networking over channels like Facebook and Twitter, and another outreach function that uses content management software to develop the content of our websites."

Likewise at financial services company Primerica, digital media is part of marketing, but the department is making an effort to work more tightly with IT. "We work more collaboratively with IT on software development projects now. We rely on IT since we don't have the technical knowhow to make all of the things behind the scenes happen," says Alan Hatcher, associate VP of publications, a marketing function.

"At first, our collaboration with IT was a learning process for both departments," he relates. "One of the grey areas was how to test new digital applications. We both initially were engaged in testing the entire application. But we now understand our respective roles: On major projects, marketing tests for usability, and IT tests the back end."

All of these organisations agree that it's important to spend time defining roles, win executive sponsorship and, most importantly, capitalise on each department's strengths. "We don't want to be a corporate communications function or to deal with a lot of the politics, which is something marketing does well," says Dade County's Suarez. "We are good at making things run, and we don't want to dilute that expertise."

2. Get ready to collaborate closely When marketing campaigns have a high degree of digital content, one common sense technique is to involve both departments in major meetings to make sure that everyone had the same essential knowledge of the project's goals and objectives.

Beyond that, the keys to delivering value to the business are effective collaboration and role differentiation, says Primerica's Hatcher. The end business doesn't really care how either marketing or IT accomplishes its projects -- it just expects them to deliver. "When you collaborate on projects for the business using different departments and skillsets, it can sometimes get competitive as to who is going to do what, but it's important to remember that you're on the same team," he says.

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Gone are the days when each department could retreat to its corner and work separately. "This is a much different environment than what it was when Web design first started," observes Hatcher. "In those days, website content was more static. Now, it's highly interactive, so it requires constant collaboration between marketing and IT since data and content must be merged."

The onus is on marketing to be able to explain to IT why "We can't do it like that" or "We can't do it that fast" aren't acceptable answers. And for its part, IT must articulate why it needs to be able to thoroughly test data integration and back-end functionality before it can green-light a project.

"We work with marketing to build awareness of why we do what we do," says Suarez. That communication is especially crucial because "this 'engine-level' software and data integration is done by IT behind the scenes," she explains. "It's largely transparent to others."

Part of IT's responsibility in the collaborative process includes articulating issues around IT infrastructure. "This includes thinking about the greater picture and about the kinds of technical and people capabilities we need to provide," says Suarez.

"Where websites are concerned, IT has to not only think about what marketing wants to achieve with content, but also about its effect on transaction processing, the capture of business analytics, the security of the website and compliance elements like PCI," she says.

Lack of active collaboration between marketing and IT is a common problem, says Howard Luks, an orthopedic surgeon who advises doctors looking to expand their digital presence. "Often, IT doesn't play a critical role in digital media except for maintaining the firewall. They're told by marketing what to do, but they should be working together as a team, as the fine line between digital media, mobile communications and IT infrastructure becomes blurred," says Luks.

Ultimately, says the USGA's Carroll, the goal is "clarity between IT and marketing on roles and functions without misunderstandings about who should be doing what with digital media."

3. Hang on to vendor management

Nowhere is the battle for who controls what initially more prominent than in the area of vendor relations. Marketing and IT managers agree that well-defined internal processes for outside vendor selection and management can eliminate confusion -- with IT, to no one's surprise, most often insisting it has more experience in contracting with technology vendors.

In Dade County, placing vendor management under IT works best because of IT's long record of experience with technology-related vendors, including those that provide digital media products and services, says Suarez. "IT supports the software, executes all of the new releases and upgrades, and provides all of the vendor management -- even if it is for tech vendors that marketing originally contracted with," she says.

The same holds true at Primerica. "We've got a process in place that technology must be purchased and coordinated through IT first," says Wade. The strategy works because IT also usually shoulders the responsibility for managing vendors, contracts and service level agreements.

4. Be prepared to compromise

As a former executive charged with running both marketing and IT, I decided to host a "break the ice" breakfast when the decision first came down to unify the departments so everyone could get acquainted. IT went for the black coffee and donuts. Marketing chose the croissants and lattes. It didn't seem like collaboration would be a slam dunk -- and it wasn't.

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But over time we were able to forge both a team and a game plan that worked. Sometimes out of necessity, the work of marketing and IT overlapped -- but the general division of labour was that marketing handled content and all communications coming through the website, and IT performed all of the website vendor management, security, application development and back-end application integration.

When it came to testing, marketing tested the user interface and general user functions, and IT performed all of the application processing and integration testing.

In general, we worked jointly on projects, developed an appreciation for each other's disciplines, and learned to compromise when we needed to -- an experience that IT managers say is common.

"There are adjustments to be made, so working together on strategy and operations helps," says Suarez. "We learned that marketing wanted things now. As IT, we had to accept that a newly added function may not fully work because it hasn't been thoroughly tested. Marketing would tell us that this is the world that Web users live in. People want instant gratification" -- meaning they will tolerate a website that is less than perfect if it can quickly get them what they want most of the time, she says.

That's a difficult lesson to learn for IT employees dedicated to detail, quality and stewardship.

"We were the ones who did most of the adjusting," admits Suarez. "It is hard to be an IT professional and accept that everything doesn't have to be perfect. Because of this, we also insist that we have an upfront agreement with marketing that tells them that website service levels in this environment will not be up six 9's."

Even so, she says, "there are still elements of interactive websites that have to work perfectly -- like taking customers' money or credit in exchange for merchandise or a plane ticket -- or enrolling a customer in a new service."

Primerica's Hatcher says the division of labour generally works fine, until "there are roadblocks when we want to get into the dynamics of website behaviour itself."

Marketing pros know how they want the website to work, but IT professionals, he concedes, are the ones who have the expertise to make it run -- or not. "At these moments, we make it a point to sit down with the software developers in IT to review the flow of the website and to work out a solution that can meet both marketing's and IT's needs."

It's a solution that Primerica CIO David Wade fully endorses. "Developing trust by understanding how everybody works and that no one is trying to 'take over' is important," he says. "The quality of your interaction matters above all else."

Former corporate IT and marketing executive Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm.

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